Skip to main content
Original Issue


From a welter of opinion, a fact emerges: government action on the problem of unfitness in American youth

Out of Annapolislast week came news that should make the children of America—and theirparents—perk up their TV-jaded ears—and possibly even move a sedentary muscleor two. In a meeting of the President's Conference on the Fitness of AmericanYouth, 140 conferees concluded that the declining state of American children'smuscles is a present danger and that quick—and presumably enjoyable—action isimperative to prevent the next generation from being unable to move at all.

Although theconference chaired by Vice-President Nixon had political overtones, it resultedin independent and concrete action.

In addition tospecific recommendations to combat youth's unfitness the conference called forthe organization of a fitness group within the government, plus a citizens'group to work with the federal one. President Eisenhower, from his hospitalbed, promptly responded by promising to create 1) a Council on Youth Fitness atthe Cabinet level to give top priority "to this most important field and tobetter coordinate the activities of some 35 federal agencies," and 2) aCitizens Advisory Committee on the Fitness of American Youth composed of keycitizens in fields appropriate to fitness, "to examine and explore thefacts and thereafter to alert America on what can and should be done."

The conferencerecommendations, as summarized by Dr. Samuel M. Brownell, U.S. Commissioner ofEducation; Mrs. Rollin Brown, president of the national PTA; Dr. W. W. Bauer ofthe American Medical Association; and Kenneth L. (Tug) Wilson, president of theU.S. Olympic Committee, were:

•Total fitnessmeans mental, spiritual and physical fitness.

•The public mustbe made aware of the problem of establishing and maintaining fitness.

•Fitness must bepopularized and promoted among children.

•Research onfitness is needed to decide what kind, how much, etc.

•Out-of-schoolprograms should include agencies already in the field (Boy Scouts, YMCA,etc.).

•Funds shouldcome from private industry, foundations, community chests and a greater shareof the tax dollar allocated to community recreation.

•Schools shouldhave more time, equipment and personnel for physical education and focus moreattention on the athletically untalented child, rather than on the star.

•The standardsand prestige of the physical education profession must be raised.

•Communityrecreational facilities should be increased and better use made of existingfacilities.

•All childrenmust have periodic medical examinations.

•Betterleadership is needed for physical activity at home (parents), in the school(physical educators) and in the community (recreational directors). Each adultmust become a better example of physical fitness.

•Girls shouldhave equal opportunity with boys for physical fitness.

Since Cabinetmembers whose departments have anything to do with fitness will serve on thecouncil created by the President, this means that at least the following willbe included: Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Folsom; Secretary ofthe Interior Seaton; and Secretary of Agriculture Benson.

Some of theexperts at the conference, leaders in the field of health, education or masscommunication like Ray Duncan of the American Association for Health, PhysicalEducation and Recreation; Dr. Leonard Scheele, U.S. Surgeon General; DavidSarnoff of RCA; Roy Larsen of Time, Inc.; Joseph Prendergast of the NationalRecreation Association, will doubtless be included in the citizen's committee.Physical education researchers like Peter Karpovich, Thomas Cureton andFrederick Rand Rogers, all exponents of some very controversial theories, willprobably also be among its members although they did not attend the Annapolistalks.

Formal summariesand speeches were delivered in the lavish auditorium in the Naval Academy'sMahan Hall, where Nixon, in the opening session, was called upon to give ademonstration of physical fitness. No provision had been made to move thepodium out of the way so a movie could be shown. Nixon started pushing it byhimself and before help came he almost landed it in the laps of the conferees.In between bouts with the podium he dropped some startling statistics:"Less than 50% of our boys and girls in high schools get physicaleducation.... Ninety-one percent of our 150,000 elementary schools have nogymnasium." Putting in a plea for the unathletic child, Nixon said: "Iremember spending four years on the bench at Whittier College, so I understandwhy the nonathlete needs attention."

NationalRecreation Association Director Prendergast tripped going up to the stage andcracked: "My fitness is not very good. I can't even make the steps."Prendergast stressed that "the fitness of American youth will be determinednot in government offices, or by books, or in state capitals, but byperson-to-person contact in the communities where the children live." Ourconcern should be, he said, for "the normal, average kid...who is neithergood enough to be a championship team player nor bad enough to be a juveniledelinquent."

But the heart andspirit of the conference was found in the animated knots of people passionatelydebating in the nine discussion groups, along the tree-lined paths on thebeautiful academy grounds, and on a boat trip on the Severn River. Here peoplelike Dr. Hans Kraus, Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, Olympic diving championDr. Sammy Lee, ex-Olympic sculls champion John B. Kelly Sr. and Fitness ExpertBonnie Prudden hashed over ways to put physical activity back into the lives ofchildren.

"Thisrestriction of physical activity is a sociological problem," said Frick."I was determined that whatever my kids did, they weren't going to have toweed onions or work on a farm like I did. It's pride."

"It's theparents' fault, they're adult delinquents," claimed John Kelly, father ofPrincess Grace. "Parents are to blame for not taking an interest in thesports performances of their kids. Every show Grace was in, I wasthere."

"Kids arelazy," Sammy Lee maintained, "and in California the schools are socongested, the kids can attend only half a day. They don't get on playgroundsmuch."

"Yes, they'relazy," agreed Frick. "Today a youngster will back out the car to go afew blocks to the store for five pounds of potatoes, then have them deliveredor get an attendant to lift the bag into the car. The evil has been done. EvenI can't do two of the Kraus-Weber tests, although at 60 I can still run aquarter mile in 1:02," he said, needling pretty Bonnie Prudden who, withDr. Kraus, tested American and European children using the Kraus-Weber test(The Report that Shocked the President, SI, Aug. 15).

"As I seeit," Miss Prudden said, grinning at him, "we frustrate activity in fivedifferent stages of life. The infant is just spontaneous combustion: we foilthat by keeping him in playpens and strollers. The young child is full ofimitating. We fix that by having no physical fitness worth imitating. The teensare interested in the opposite sex, but we don't take advantage of that, weseparate the sexes in physical education classes. The young adult wants to lookwell. We negate that by designing clothes to hide the figure. Our last chance,with older adults who fear death, is ruined because many of our doctors saydon't exercise after 40."

Said Dr. Kraussuccinctly: "We live in a society without enough physical activity. Let'sget it."

"Buthow?" protested Frick. "It's utterly ridiculous for me to say whatshould be done about fitness. Good heavens, I don't know!"

Strangely enough,it was this frank admission that all they knew was that U.S. kids needed moreexercise to keep fit, coupled with a strong determination to find out how tomake them so, which made this conference productive. Former conferences, moreheavily larded with fitness experts, often bogged down because the authoritiesin the field were loth to admit that they had no standard of fitness on whichthey can agree. All the experts can say is that to be fit means to be able tocarry on your daily life comfortably and have energy and strength left over foremergencies. This tells us little, because whose daily life are they talkingabout, and what is the minimum fitness everyone should have? Oneno-longer-svelte doctor complained that unless he maintained an apparent stateof overweight and relative inactivity, he didn't feel well enough to do hiswork. So fitness for him apparently is not fitness for other people, or fitnessby the generally accepted standard of proper weight and a trim figure. Even fora soldier, fitness is an unmeasurable thing, despite Selective Service DirectorMajor General Lewis B. Hershey's definition that it is "the ability to doyour job without tension." It is said that during World War II sailors whowere fit for their shipboard jobs and knew how to swim, still weren't fitenough to keep from drowning, because they didn't have sufficient strength topush off and keep free of sinking craft.

How much muscularstrength we need and other puzzlers were mulled over by the conferees. Theyasked themselves: should every American be able to run a quarter mile at acertain speed (allowing for differences in age and sex), even though thechances of his ever having to run this distance, or run at all, are one inseveral thousands? What does constitute a test of a person's physical fitness?For every test now in use, there is at least one expert who disapproves ofusing it. To discover a scientific standard for fitness is one of the headachesthe new fitness council and citizens' committee will face.

Another isdetermining the relationship of physical activity to health. Some authoritiesbelieve that lack of exercise can be partially responsible for everything fromshortness of breath to degenerative diseases like arteriosclerosis and coronarythrombosis. But the evidence is not really conclusive.

Certainly thereis agreement that fitness retrogresses without physical activity. During theconference Creighton Hale, research director of Little League Baseball,reported on a study that adds to the data supporting this fact. Dr. Hale foundthat approximately half of the boys who scored low in the Kraus-Weber physicalfitness test at the end of the school year were greatly improved by the end ofthe summer. But at the completion of the following school year, there was amarked drop in fitness. Six times as many boys showed lower scores in June 1956than they had in September 1955.

A researchproject which may define some of these areas has been proposed by Dr. RaymondA. Weiss of New York University, who was not present at the conference. Dr.Weiss plans to subject a group of sedentary adults to a progressivelystepped-up physical activity program lasting two years. Comparisons ofdifferences between this group and a second control group that leads a normallysedentary life during the same period, should yield the first concrete evidenceon the relationship of certain kinds and degrees of exercise to general fitnessfor living.

Other suggestionsfor pertinent research are contained in House Bill No. 11521 to establish acouncil of national fitness composed of 24 members "from the fields ofmedicine, physical education and related sciences." Introduced a month agoin the House of Representatives by Congressman James C. Murray (Dem., Ill.) andnow in committee, the bill calls for study of 1) "the immediate andlong-range effects of various forms of physical exertion on individuals atvarious ages," 2) "the medical, physical, physiological and educational aspects of all sports at various agelevels," 3) "the required time that should be allotted from anelementary or high school student's school day to a supervised physicaleducation program."

Only afterdefinitive answers to these questions are found can a sound national fitnessprogram be set up. But Annapolis may prove to have been Round One in thefitness fight. As Nixon said: "This can be the beginning of the solution orthe shelving of the project." Dr. Kraus, an enthusiastic and accomplishedrock climber, put his conclusion in terms of the sport he loves: "It's likeclimbing a six (the most difficult degree of ascent). You can't plot the climbfrom the ground, you have to get up to the first ledge before you can even seebeyond it. In this conference I think we've reached the first ledge in theclimb for national fitness."


1. Join in family sports and generally encouragefitness in your children.

2. Go before your school board and discuss plans formore time, facilities and personnel for physical education.

3. Be an active part of local boys' clubs, YMCAs, BoyScouts, etc.

4. Form a local citizens' committee to work with localrecreation agencies for better fitness in the community.

5. Initiate and support local and state legislation tocreate better recreation facilities.

6. Support H.R. 11521 to establish a council onnational fitness.


SPORTS CELEBRITIES Rogers Hornsby (left) and George Mikan (right) get together with the Vice-President at Annapolis during the President's Conference on Fitness.


KEY FIGURES in the fight to restore physical activity to American children's lives are Conferees John B. Kelly (left), Dr. Hans Kraus and Dr. Joseph B. Wolffe (right).


"Ici Cap Gris-Nez?"